MINNEAPOLIS — When he wasn’t doing his darndest to figure out the Chicago White Sox lineup, the Minnesota Twins’ newest prized commodity sat near the middle of the first-base dugout, occasionally picking at his fingernails in agitated remorse.
It didn’t at all resemble the guy who pitched a shutout his last time out here.
During his first two big-league starts, rookie southpaw Andrew Albers learned the meaning of fame and fan frenzy. He sniffed majors history, helped draw a crowd of 36,833 spectators to watch two sinking baseball teams, and had Minnesota’s neighbor to the north fawning this past week over its latest top-of-the-line up-and-comer.
Saturday at Target Field, the mania subsided. Albers pitched fine, not fantastic. A near-historic beginning became a delayed welcome-to-the-big-time experience.
“You see today how quickly things can change,” Albers said.
The final line on Albers’ first average-looking outing with the Twins: seven innings, five earned runs on five hits, three strikeouts, and statistical responsibility for an 8-5 loss, Minnesota’s second straight in a four-game series that concludes Sunday.
Subpar, rather than subhuman.
A four-run fourth inning cemented Albers’ first taste of defeat at this level, but the reality check began on his second pitch of the night. It was then that White Sox leadoff man Alejandro De Aza singled on a soft line drive to left that dropped in between four Minnesota fielders.
Two batters later, Alexei Ramirez’s double sent Ramirez to third, and Paul Konerko followed up with an RBI ground-out that put a run next to Albers’ name for the first time in 17 1/3 innings. After two shutdown starts since his contract was selected Aug. 2, he needed three more scoreless frames to knot the longest career-commencing scoreless streak for a major league starter since 1974.
The top of Chicago’s lineup put that notion to rest almost immediately.
“The streak was great while it was going on,” Albers said. “It was awesome to have those two nights. They’re pretty special, and who knows if that will ever happen again.”
The 27-year-old Saskatchewan native’s third evening would get better, but not until after it got worse.
The White Sox answered a three-run Twins third with a four-spot of their own capped by Dayan Viciedo’s 390-foot home run over the left-center field fence. Avisail Garcia’s line-drive double down the left-field line brought home Adam Dunn, who fell behind 0-2 but roped the third straight sinker he saw for a two-base hit of his own.
One more effective pitch, and Albers makes it out of the decisive inning unscathed.
“I thought Albers hung in pretty damn good after just one bad inning,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “You look back at that, and if he makes one pitch, he’s out of that inning.
“But he didn’t, and it ended up costing him.”
Facing another notable lefty with a bit more experience by the name of Chris Sale — who also pitched seven innings and counterbalanced nine hits with eight strikeouts — Minnesota was unable to bail out Albers more than once.
The Twins certainly tried.
In addition to three double plays turned at second base behind Albers, Ryan Doumit crushed a homer to right field in his second game back from the seven-day concussion list. That brought Minnesota (54-67) within a run at 6-5 in the bottom of the eighth, but De Aza responded with a two-run shot of his own against reliever Casey Fien.
Chicago (48-74) took a 2-1 series lead and has won eight of its past 13 games. The Twins still maintain a comfortable yet dubious lead over the White Sox for fourth place in the five-team American League Central Division.
Albers’ second home start — against a two-time All-Star in Sale (9-11, 2.78 ERA), no less — drew a hefty crowd for a late-August game between teams with long-crushed playoff hopes. Albers went 8 1/3 innings in his scoreless debut against streaking Kansas City on Aug. 6, then wowed Target Field with his team’s only complete-game shutout this season, against Cleveland, six days later.
The elusive breaking ball and changeup tosses that earned him those two victories were on display in the middle innings Saturday, as he faced the minimum in the fifth, sixth and seventh stanzas.
By then, it was too late.
“I was able to catch the breaks those first two nights, and tonight didn’t quite catch as many,” said Albers, whose name quickly circulated around Canada last week and had him answering many media requests between starts. “Things change, and then you make one bad pitch, and you pay for it.”
A couple balls lost in the Minneapolis twilight didn’t help matters, either. Dunn’s insurance run-scoring double in the eighth against Caleb Thielbar plopped down in front of left fielder Josh Willingham, who said he “just didn’t see it” in the setting sun.
A .310 hitter at Target Field, Dunn finished 3-for-4 on the day and helped put an end to a short but enjoyable week of perfection for Albers.
Lesson learned, the pitcher said.
“I didn’t feel bad mentally out there, just a little out of rhythm,” said Albers, who’s now 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA. “Pitching’s a fine-tuned skill. If you’re a little bit off, the ball’s gonna sail a little bit, you’re gonna fall behind, and those guys can obviously swing it over there. They get paid for a reason, and they’re pretty good.
“You’ve got to be on top of your game, or you’re gonna get hurt.”